The year 1988, the press reported, would be a breakthrough year for women in politics. But in the end, only two additional women were elected to the House of Representatives, none to the Senate.
In 1990, we were again told we were seeing the "Year of the Woman." But although 70 women won major party nominations that year, the numbers in Congress did not change.
This time, the experts say, they're serious: 1992 is really and truly the "Year of the Woman" in American politics.
The repeated recourse to the "Year of the Woman" tag is some indication of the simplistic and superficial tone of much of the coverage of this year's female Congressional candidates, as revealed by a FAIR survey of major dailies and television news. The number of women running for Congress from the two major parties is unprecedented--at last count, 18 were aiming for Senate seats, 153 running for the House. But from the hyperbole of reporters, one would gather that women were on the verge of taking over the U.S. government.
Of all the media outlets surveyed, the New York Times seemed the most overheated. Characterizing 1992 as a "historic watershed" (6/3/92), Times articles heralded the "political ascendancy of women" (6/7/92), made much of women's "stunning clout" (6/4/92), and predicted "an avalanche" of female victories (5/29/92).
At least one letter-writer to the Times (6/14/92) attempted to put things in perspective, and reminded reporters and editors that "to have representative numbers of women and minorities in positions of leadership and power in this country, we will need far more than the five new women in the Senate and 20 in the House of Representatives that you project." Even multiplying the number of women in the Senate by five (from two to ten) would leave that institution 90 percent male.
Women's political orientations--unlike men's--are assumed to be defined and driven by gender. "In New York, Gender Politics Rule," according to a USA Today headline (6/22/92)--simply because there are two women running for the same U.S. Senate seat.
Press and TV accounts blur individual distinctions among the nearly 200 candidates, routinely linking and effectively equating such different politicians as Carol Moseley Braun, a progressive from Illinois who ran a successful grassroots campaign against incumbent Sen. Alan Dixon, and Dianne Feinstein, who has, for example, vetoed a city ordinance extending comparable-worth laws to municipal employees, supports the death penalty and once gave the keys of the city of San Francisco to deposed Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
"Will Women Pols Clean House?"
While lumping all women candidates together, the news reports FAIR surveyed frequently employed generalizations and stereotypes about women's supposed values, concerns and abilities.
Some of these stereotypes are familiar and crude, as when a Newsday headline (5/27/92) quipped, "Will Women Pols Clean House?" A New York Times piece by R.W. Apple (6/3/92) referred to "former Marin County housewife" Barbara Boxer, as if that were the most germane designation for a woman who has served the last 10 years in the House of Representatives. (When have we heard reference to "former paperboy Arlen Specter?") Senatorial candidate Boxer was also dubbed a "feisty little woman" (New York Times, 6/1/92), and columnist Suzanne Fields (Washington Times, 3/26/92) referred to the Senate contest between Elizabeth Holtzman and Geraldine Ferraro as "the cat fight at the New York corral."
Stereotypical ideas about women were also expressed in analysis, which employed uncritically the "conventional wisdom" about women candidates' supposed interests and areas of expertise. In a May 30 broadcast, ABC News' Cokie Roberts delivered the standard line that "the recent riots in Los Angeles could make it a lot harder for women to win," and suggested that women candidates' chances for success would depend on whether voters wanted "tough law and order solutions or more tender social policies."
A May 25 New York Times article reported that although racial violence and the economy were the "dominant issues" in California's Senate contest, candidates Feinstein and Boxer were being watched for what they said about "women and women's issues." Their contributions are important, the article indicated, "in the aftermath of several major rape trials, developments in the abortion rights debate and...hearings on sexual harassment."
Most accounts of women in politics tended to focus on narrowly defined "women's issues." Many issues that disproportionately affect women (like poverty, when two-thirds of poor adults are women) are not considered women's issues, and women candidates' views on general issues of public policy are often not considered significant.
Not only are women assigned selected issues, but the media very often makes assumptions about what those positions are. This makes it possible for 53 percent of the electorate to be spoken of--and often dismissed as--as a homogeneous "special interest group," with the tacit assumption of a shared, dogmatic agenda.
"Another Angry Woman"
A major current in mainstream coverage is overblown rhetoric about women's "anger and frustration." A May 3 New York Times headline read, "Another Angry Woman Wins Senate Nomination." USA Today's Al Neuharth suggested that women might even win the presidency, if they "keep their dander up" (5/1/92). One article spoke of a mood of "feminine revenge" (USA Today, 5/20/92).
From many accounts, one would think that American women's interest in politics sprang into existence at the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings. The so-called "Thomas factor" (New York Times editorial, 6/4/92) gets a mention in virtually every report about women's candidacies. Women's anger and frustration are real enough, but this sort of coverage plays on a disparaging theme of women's political engagement as primarily emotion-driven and irrational.
Nowhere is the allegedly monolithic quality of women more noticeable than in the ubiquitous characterization of female candidates as "outsiders." Repeatedly--and usually unequivocally--press accounts and broadcasts describe women as "ultimate" and "quintessential" outsiders (New York Times, 6/4/92, USA Today, 3/26/92), regardless of who they are or what they've accomplished.
Most women running for the U.S. Senate or Congress this year have extensive records in electoral politics. Barbara Boxer, as noted, served in the House of Representatives for 10 years. Dianne Feinstein has been in public office for more than two decades. And, of course, Geraldine Ferraro is a former vice-presidential candidate.
But even articles that take note of candidates' individual histories inside the Beltway stubbornly hold to the "outsider" label. For instance, an article in USA Today (6/3/92) acknowledged that neither Feinstein nor Boxer is a "newcomer," but nonetheless proclaimed that their "outsider" candidacies were "shaking up the political establishment" in California.
Lynn Yeakel's victory in the Democratic primary for the Pennsylvania Senate race has fostered much of the "Year of the Woman" coverage. But while Yeakel has never held an elected position, it's hard to see someone who has met three U.S. presidents and the Queen of England as the "ultimate outsider."
In addition to the simple inaccuracy of labeling many of the women competing for office in 1992 as "outsiders," the assumption is that women's political value is rooted more in their disengagement from the political process than in the platforms, programs and personal experiences of individual women.
The New Handicap: Being Male
The hype about women as "outsiders" has spawned the myth that women politicians have a distinct advantage by virtue of their gender: "The Republicans facing Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer for California's two Senate seats start with what could be a new handicap--they're men," reported USA Today (6/4/92). Sexism in politics, it seems, only hurts men this year.
Reporting on the supposed "gender advantage" and descriptions of women's candidacies as a "flood," "wave," or "avalanche," have already provided an excuse for defeated men. As Gray Davis, who lost to Dianne Feinstein, suggested, "This might not have been the best year to be a man." (Los Angeles Times 6/4/92)
Some reports have implied that women's candidacies somehow lack the legitimacy of men's, as exemplified by a Washington Times headline (4/13/92) that asserted: "Women Crowd Race." The New York Times (5/29/92) suggested insufficient gratitude on the part of women towards men who had previously defended their interests: "Old Allies Pushed Aside" ran the subtitle.
Rarely did press accounts acknowledge the obstacles women political candidates continue to face in raising money and securing endorsements, both because they are women and because they generally don't have the benefits of incumbency. Both Carol Moseley Braun and Lynn Yeakel, for instance, ran in the primaries without the backing of the Democratic Party. Even articles that reported the fact that their opponents raise more money touted these women's political "advantage."
Still more exceptional was reporting which discussed the ways that sexism undermines women's effectiveness once in office. USA Today (4/1/92) published a survey of women in Congress that found "deep frustration tempered by a reluctance to criticize publicly the men whose cooperation they depend on day to day." Reporters Leslie Phillips and Patricia Edmonds summarized their findings: "Even if [women] win, victory will be far from a dream come true.... No woman has been elected to a leadership position in Congress. No woman holds a full committee chairmanship, the source of real power. The lack of seniority is to blame. But so too is the male culture on Capitol Hill."
Conclusion: What About Next Year?
It is a trivialization of women's political involvement, as candidates and as supporters, to suggest that it is merely a trend or an anomaly, the result of a unique "confluence of factors" that may never recur.
Analysts like Ruth Mandel of the Center for the Study of American Women and Politics at Rutgers University point out that women are now positioned to run for, and win, higher offices, not because of some sudden burst of interest or opportunity, but because of years of hard work and slow, steady gains at the local and state levels. In a May 28 Newsday interview, Mandel emphasized what the press usually missed, that "no single year is the year of the woman candidate."
While the press was declaring its 1990 version of the Year of the Woman a bust, for example, because the predicted Congressional victories did not materialize, women won more than half of the 85 state-wide seats for which they competed. The media's inconstant attentions, then, both overhype women's potential gains and downplay real progress.
Moreover, even as it might temporarily benefit candidates and their fundraising efforts, much of the "Year of the Woman" coverage lumps and labels women's political concerns and, at its worst, threatens to deepen the same tired old stereotypes which hold women back.
SIDEBAR: More Than We Bargained For?
Political races in which women challenged other women seemed to confound journalists fixated on gender as the determining factor. Operating on a sort of "quota-of-one" principle, many journalists concluded that women running against other women was simply too much of a good thing. Referring to the competition in New York between Geraldine Ferraro and Elizabeth Holtzman for the Democratic nomination to the U.S. Senate, Michael Specter of the New York Times (3/14/92) opined, "Anxious and conflicted partisans...may already be getting more than they bargained for."
Reports on the Ferraro-Holtzman race often asserted that "it is hard to tell the candidates apart" (New York Times, 2/7/92); their "differences on major issues seem slight to many of those in the trenches." (New York Times, 3/14/92)
The people to whom the confusion was attributed were usually feminist political activists and voters, but journalists might have been describing themselves. Women (and men) actively campaigning for Ferraro or Holtzman are likely to know that the two women's voting records in the House of Representatives had serious differences: While Holtzman wrote an amendment to shift funds from the military budget to domestic programs, Ferraro voted against such a shift. Ferraro voted to recriminalize homosexuality in Washington, D.C.; Holtzman co-sponsored gay and lesbian civil rights legislation. Ferraro supports the death penalty. Holtzman opposes it.
May news stories decried the burden of choice that two women candidates placed on voters--particularly women voters. Papers like the New York Times, which have almost never reported on the pain and frustration caused by the underrepresentation of women and people of color in politics and government, now declared (3/14/92) that the New York race "has become one of the most politically painful that many women have faced."